13 Jun 2014

Nigerian Pidgin: Help or Hindrance


Nigerian pidgin got a recent wave of publicity in recent weeks, suddenly gaining visibility and becoming part of the discussion. This happened as a consequence of the Bring Back Our Girls movement which we discussed here, when none other than the First lady of the federation, Patience Jonathan made what many called a blunder during a meeting with concerned parties. After summoning interest groups in a bid to ‘help’ the abducted girls of Chibok, she proceeded to get exceedingly emotional, to the point of tears. But this rare show of emotion wasn't what caught the attention of Nigerians but the First Lady’s grammar. The First Lady for some reason, after inviting pressmen to cover the meeting decided to conduct the entire meeting in Nigerian Pidgin/english hybrid language. The entire speech quickly went viral and was even aired on CNN and the BBC
who had to resort to subtitles, for a meeting conducted in ‘passable’ English. Many Nigerians were utterly embarrassed. The real question is why?

Nigerians have always had a weird relationship with language. A country with more than three hundred indigenous languages, our local dialects have always been a strong source of kinship and identity, woven into the very fabric of how we see ourselves. Even the majority of our tribes are named after the languages they speak. A number of stereotypes have grown out of these language and tribal barriers, some good some bad. But over the last three hundred years, as by-products of colonialism and subsequent nationalism, English and French were adopted as the country’s lingua-franca, our official languages. Gone were the individual languages by which we defined ourselves, no more did we need to define and separate ourselves by the lexis and structure of our mother tongues.

In spite of the altruistic efforts of both former colonial masters and subsequent nationalists, English as an official language has failed to unite the nation or provide a common ground for everyone to stand. Instead it has become a currency of sorts, the sheen of one’s accent and even the kind of accent one wields in official situations determines the kind of attention and in some cases, deference that is accorded to the person in question. This is usually a phenomenon restricted to people fairly educated, with western exposure or a good grasp of the English language, as accents are difficult to adopt properly and maintain for long without dedication. Then there is Nigerian pidgin. The closest thing to Nigerian pidgin is Jamaican patois, a bastardization/intermarriage of conventional English with colonial French and the indigenous languages spoken in the West Indies. While Patois is an official language in Jamaica, pidgin exists in many African countries as an alternate unofficial language used alongside the official ones.

Nigerian pidgin in particular is a marriage of English, Portuguese and West Indian Creole broken down and infused with liberal helpings of the local languages. It is a fluid colloquial language that constantly evolves, imbibing current slangs and slum lingo as well as international fads while discarding generationally distinct words and phrases. In 2014 Swagga a variation of the English urban slang Swag has been imbibed in local pidgin, a word that as early as ten years ago would have made no sense to anyone. Pidgin is a language spoken almost universally across Nigeria, subtly shifting between tribal boundaries but with enough similarities that it has become indispensable as a gateway language. It serves as bridge between the completely illiterate and the elite of the country and enables interaction between the two.

Many of the elite learn pidgin in childhood through illiterate domestic staff who live with the families and raise their children. Indigenous language speakers learn it through commercial interactions in markets and farms. Pidgin is integral to social and economic life as helps many get through learning English in school, providing common ground for transitioning between indigenous languages to English. Nigerian pidgin particularly is language all parties regress to when they are threatened or intimidated as it is a language that is simultaneously pacifying and aggressive. This is evidenced by the First Lady’s lapse into pidgin during her emotional meeting. This was also the language used by the escaped Chibok girls when international agencies reached out to interview them.

Her dependence on pidgin elicited very different responses from Nigerians, many of whom were ashamed that the First Lady couldn't communicate gracefully and effectively at such a sensitive time. Others were sympathetic, suggesting that the First Lady connected with the as many as two million Native pidgin speakers as well as about seventy five million who spoke the language as their auxiliary language. Some even went as far as a lexical analysis of the First Lady’s speech in language that itself was filled with grammatical and lexical errors. The general consensus from the incident was that the First Lady was illiterate. Herein lies the dilemma.

Literacy is basically defined as the ability to read and write. While we have no physical evidence of the First Lady’s written academic proficiency, her dependence on Nigerian Pidgin is an insufficient index on which to write her off as illiterate, same as the escaped Chibok Girls who were writing their WAEC exams at the time of their abduction but couldn't speak formal English. Books like Marlon James’s The Book of Night Women, one of many literary books written entirely in Jamaican Patois manages to be sufficiently legible to people from any clime and is sufficiently engaging for one to make the argument that pidgin doesn't hinder literacy. In the same way a good command of French doesn't make a native French speaker in an English speaking country illiterate, being an indigenous pidgin speaker doesn't equate illiteracy. This mentality is a remnant of colonialism and its aggressive suggestion that verbal and written proficiency of Queen’s English was and is the only index of literacy. Indigenous cultures were destroyed and centuries old oral histories were suppressed and in some cases destroyed. Complex cultures like the Yoruba and Igbo civilizations were labelled bloodthirsty and savage and crushed. In the North, the suppression was so absolute, little of their pre-jihad/colonial culture remains. Pidgin is a remnant, nay survivor of that dark time, a resourceful solution to the language barriers placed by the forced adoption of formal English.

Nigerian Pidgin has thrived because of its importance to communication among Nigerians, even internationally educated Nigerian musicians and artisans return to those humble roots when they want their music to receive acceptance across tribal barriers. While the First Lady’s gross deficiency in the mastery of formal English is appalling, her use of pidgin as a means of communication is acceptable. It highlights how integral Pidgin is to Nigerians, a language understood internally by all Nigerians and somehow manages to exclude foreigners. If pidgin is treated less like an auxiliary language and given more structure, its function as a language bridge could be better used and utilized, especially in the area of education where using imagery that Nigerians already understand, difficult concepts could be better explained, the disconnect between blue collar and white collar workers could be more easily bridged when negotiations can be formally done in pidgin, artisans could reach more people with music and media filmed in the language.


As Nigerians we need to rid pidgin of the stigma of being associated with illiteracy and accrue its importance as a language, not as definer of socio-economic class. Only then will the opportunities for it to be progressively utilized become clear. 

From us at 9jeducation. 

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